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Social Justice and Forced Displacements

© Tod Ragsdale, 2001

Compulsory displacements that occur for development reasons embody a perverse and intrinsic contradiction in the context of development. They raise major ethical questions because they reflect an inequitable distribution of development's benefits and losses.

Forced displacement results from the need to build infrastructure for new industries, irrigation, transportation highways, power generation, or for urban developments such as hospitals, schools, and airports. Such programs are indisputably needed. They improve many people's lives, provide employment, and supply better services. But the involuntary displacements caused by such programs also create major impositions on some population segments. They restrict that population's rights by state-power intervention and are often carried out in ways that cause the affected populations to end up worse off. This raises major issues of social justice and equity. The principle of the "greater good for the larger numbers," routinely invoked to rationalize forced displacements, is, in fact, often abused and turned into an unwarranted justification for tolerating ills that are avoidable. The outcome is an unjustifiable repartition of development's costs and benefits: Some people enjoy the gains of development, while others bear its pains.

The most widespread effect of involuntary displacement is the impoverishment of considerable numbers of people. In India, for instance, researchers found that the country's development programs have caused an aggregate displacement of more than 20 million people during roughly four decades, but that 75 percent of these people have not been "rehabilitated" (Fernandes 1991; Fernandes, Das, and Rao 1989). Their livelihoods have not been restored; in fact, the vast majority of development resettlers in India have become impoverished (Mahapatra 1999b).

But this does not happen in India alone. Such impoverishment, with its de facto lack of social justice and equity, is manifest in numerous other countries throughout the developing world when involuntary resettlement occurs. Material and cultural losses in each case are vast. No less serious a consequence is the political tension that accompanies forced relocation. Forced displacement epitomizes social exclusion of certain groups of people. It cumulates physical exclusion from a geographic territory with economic and social exclusion out of a set of functioning social networks. The concept of exclusion (Rodgers, Gore, and Figueiredo 1995) adds to the understanding of impoverishment. Sen (1997) argues further that various forms of social exclusion are contrary to the very nature of development, defined as increasing freedom.

Development will continue, however, to require changes in land use and water use and thus make various degrees of population relocation at times unavoidable. Yet, this does not mean that the inequitable distribution of development's gains and pains is itself inevitable, or ethically justified. Such inequity is, in fact, profoundly contrary to the proclaimed goals of induced development. There is no reason to accept spatial rearrangements and their pernicious consequences with resignation as an ineluctable tragedy. Adherence to social justice and equity norms and respect for civil rights and people's entitlements should remain paramount whenever development brings about risks and exacts predictable tolls.

If impoverishment is the looming risk in displacement, the challenge is to organize risk prevention and provide safeguards. This can increase the benefits of development by eliminating some of its avoidable pathologies. It may not be feasible to prevent every single adverse effect. But it is certainly possible to put in place sets of procedures, backed up by financial resources, that would increase equity in bearing the burden of loss and in the distribution of benefits. It is certainly possible, under enlightened policies, to protect much more effectively then current practices do the civil rights, human dignity, and economic entitlements of those subject to involuntary relocation.

The conventional planning approaches that cause many to be displaced and allow only a few to be "rehabilitated" do not adequately protect against risks and loss of entitlements and rights. Without social safety measures, they have led to recurrent failures. In most cases, they have been incapable of preventing the victimization, de-capitalization, and impoverishment of those affected. But the repeated instances of resettlement without rehabilitation point sharply also to congenital defects in the current domestic policies of many countries, not just in the planning procedures. We argue that such "development" policies, and the resulting planning methodologies, must be corrected or changed.

There are practical ways to fully avoid specific instances of involuntary displacement, or at least to decrease their magnitude. Although, historically speaking, relocations (as a class of processes) are unavoidable, not every individual case of displacement proposed by planners is either inevitable or justified. Further, even when displacement is planned, mass impoverishment itself is not a necessary outcome and therefore should not be tolerated as inexorable. There are many ways to reduce displacement's hazards and adverse socioeconomic effects.

Redressing the inequities caused by displacement and enabling affected people to share in the benefits of growth is not just possible but imperative, on both economic and moral grounds. Socially responsible resettlement-that is, resettlement genuinely guided by an equity compass-can counteract lasting impoverishment and generate benefits for both the national and local economy. Yet, much too often, those who approve and design projects causing displacement are deprived of an "equity compass" that can guide them in allocating project resources and preventing (or mitigating) the risks of impoverishment (Cernea 1986, 1988, 1996b; Mahapatra 1991; Scudder 1981). In an attempt to help develop such an equity compass, this paper proposes a risks-and-reconstruction-oriented framework for resettlement operations. It argues against some chronic flaws in the policies and methodologies for planning and financing resettlement and recommends necessary improvements in policy and in mainstream resettlement practices.

Forward to A Model of Risks and Risk Avoidance

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